Tracking silent revolution in a Rajasthan village

How economic, social and political paradigms were changed in Tilonia village


Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | June 20, 2014

As India goes into a tizzy with the arrival of achchhe din, the lexicon of the Big is asserting itself with renewed vigour. ‘Good times’, an obvious metaphor for relentless expansion, seems to have obsessively consumed the masses. Whether India traverses the unchartered course to becoming a Shanghai is yet to be seen, a small village in Rajasthan, in the meanwhile, is disaffirming capitalism, its pragmatic consensus, technocratic managerialism and its grandiose patterns of social and economic configurations. It emphasises a Schumacherian human scale: go back to human relationships and human needs.

On first sight, Tilonia village is typical in its nondescript-ness. Nothing prepares you, however, for the extraordinary stories that abound here. The villagers have brought a silent, non-violent and no-frills revolution overturning structures of discrimination that have held them captive for centuries. In the late 1960s an urban, elite youth called Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy [Also read] came to Tilonia for a visit. Appalled at the miserable social norms and living conditions, Roy and his friend from Tilonia, Meghraj, decided to find alternative ways of addressing poverty and inequality.

He stayed on and was to irreversibly change the so-called ‘space of flows’ (economic, social and political) in Tilonia in a mere four decades. Strong in his conviction that the lack of a formal education should not be the indelible marker of anybody’s destiny, Roy founded the Barefoot College in 1972 and started training illiterate villagers.

Ram Niwas, a dalit from Akhoria village, came to the college 25 years ago. He suffered the discriminations usual for a person from his caste. It was when Barefoot came to Akhoria to dig a well where the dalits lived, that Ram Niwas saw a flicker of hope for change. The higher castes, of course, were enraged and insisted that the well be dug in their part of the village but Bunker stood his ground. Ram Niwas was intrigued and deeply influenced by these ‘revolutionaries’. He went to Tilonia and found it to be the inverse of the iniquitous world he was used to. He could not imagine living in Akhoria anymore.

Ram Niwas reminisces, “Bunker asked me how I could contribute. Since I was not educated, I offered to become a chaprasi. He replied that there was no service system at Barefoot. Then he asked me if I wanted to become an accountant. I thought he was making fun of me. I had always seen accountants coming in cars with suits and sunglasses. Then I realised he was serious. I was nervous but I agreed.”
Ram Niwas was trained in Jaipur and became an accountant in three months instead of six months. “I had a thirst for knowledge.” He now manages the accounts of the college.

He also had a passion for puppetry. He learnt the art, becoming an accountant by day and puppeteer in the evening. Ram Niwas recalls, “My first puppet show was against patwaris and their exploitation of the villagers. The patwaris were enraged and instigated the villagers saying that dalits and women should not be allowed on stage. I felt humiliated when I was asked to get off the stage but that day I realised that my puppets are powerful.”

Today the same people ask Ram Niwas to perform puppet shows for them. He uses puppetry for spreading social messages. “Even today I am not allowed in temples. But I don’t need the gods anymore. My puppets are my gods. They are transparent and tell the truth about the world,” he smiles.

Sitting with Ram Niwas is Bhagwat Nandan, 62, a former priest. Their proximity would be unthinkable outside of the Barefoot context. Bhagwat began as a Barefoot night school teacher in 1976 and subsequently became a barefoot solar engineer. Popularly known as guruji, he is something of a legend in the Barefoot family, having trained 1,000 Barefoot solar engineers – spreading the Barefoot way of life across the world. His impact: 50,000 solar-electrified houses and 604 Barefoot grandmothers trained across 64 countries. Bhagwat and Laxman Singh, another old volunteer at Barefoot, have travelled to many places training villagers. They generate enough income for the college to be sustainable.
Barefoot chooses a village from the least developed countries (LDC) and contacts a community-based organisation (CBO). The selection criteria are threefold: the villages should be un-electrified, should be at least ten km from the grid, should be using kerosene, stoves, diesel, batteries etc, and should have at least 100 houses. The CBO gives a list of ‘grandmothers’, that is, elderly women, who are illiterate, more than 35 years old and considered unproductive by the community.

After the short-listing, a Barefoot team visits the country and selects the grandmothers for solar-engineering training in Tilonia. One of the most remarkable features is that the trainees, apart from being illiterate, do not share a common language with the trainer. Through the training period of six months, the only pedagogical tools are sign language and a common book with colour codes and diagrams. Yet, as Bunker points out: “Not one failure.”

Nelda and Lisa from the Philippines are excited about the training despite the sapping heat of Rajasthan. “Electricity is very expensive in the Philippines. We survive mostly on hydroelectric power. Solar energy is not popular. I will go back and solar-light my village and try solar cooking.”
Najma was an unemployed, illiterate housewife, struggling to make ends meet till 2003. She first came to learn solar lighting and then moved to solar cooking. Initially there was a lot of resistance from her family to Najma working outside of the house. After much persuasion, though, her husband agreed. It has been 11 years since and Najma has trained around 50 women from all over the world and has 13 women working under her whom she teaches to weld, cut iron, and make solar panels.

“Today, I feel there is no difference between a man and a woman. I have two sons and a daughter. All should have equal rights. My daughter is in higher secondary school,” Najma says with pride.

As she explains complex geometrical adjustments for setting the angle of a solar panel, I quip, “Ap toh lag raha hai kee zaroorat pade toh suraj ka angle bhi badal denge? (You look so confident in this job that you might change the angle of the sun, if need be). “Training deejiye, woh bhi seekh lenge (teach us and we will learn that too),” quips back Najma.  

Equally remarkable are the stories of two illiterate women who have become dentists – and a man who is now a pathologist. Laxman, a differently-abled man who ran a phone booth, explains all the tests he runs at his little path lab inside the premises of the college. “I am a totally different person today,” was all he said. Bhanwari, who has studied up to grade 5, and Kesar, who giggles informing me that she signs with her thumb, have a thriving dental clinic. They have treated at least 1,400 patients and charge a nominal fee of Rs. 50 for three visits.

Bhanwari narrates an anecdote: “Once, a foreigner who used to come with a helicopter to Tilonia, had a terrible toothache. The villagers directed him to me. When he saw me, he was extremely reluctant to let me treat him. But he had no choice. He was much relieved after I treated him. He offered me '500 but I said I did not need so much money. Then he offered to take me around in his helicopter. I agreed and took three other women with me. I saw bright lights below and pointed to my friends how beautiful Tilonia looks from the sky.”

The real change ostensibly seems to be emanating from the children of Tilonia. The night schools are mostly attended by girls who cannot go to regular schools as girls usually have to share household burdens including cattle-herding. They learn basic mathematics, science and English. They also have their parliament and a cabinet of ministers led by a prime minister in the night schools which has been instrumental in countering many unfair social norms.

One of the health ministers campaigned and succeeded in removing a liquor shop outside the night school – it happened to belong to her father. A prime minister drank water from a tube-well used by the lower castes as a mark of defiance to encourage all children to use the common tube-well located near the school.

Ram Niwas remembers a professor from California visiting the night school with a group of his students. The American students introduced themselves as ‘Class 17’ (postgraduate) students. The professor then described America and said that it has three times more land than India but three times less the population.

A little girl felt disappointed, maybe at the way India was portrayed in its underdevelopment. She asked if the students knew how to graze animals, to cook, to keep a house, look after their younger siblings while at the same time attending school. The visiting students replied in the negative. “So what were you learning till Class 17?” she retorted.

What brought Tilonia to national focus, however, was the famous Sanjit Roy vs. State of Rajasthan case of 1983. ‘Jokhim chacha’, a puppet character from Ram Niwas’s repertoire, made people aware of the discrepancies of wage payments to men and women (Rs. 3-4 for men and Rs. 2 for women instead of the minimum wage of '7). ‘Jokhim chacha’ suggested that the women, led by Norti Devi, block the highway since the district administration refused to listen to their pleas. Bunker filed a case in 1982 which led to the landmark judgment by justices Bhagwati and RN Kapur that the payment of wages at less than the statutory minimum rate — even for famine relief — violated the ban on forced labour (Article 23) of the constitution.

This was the first in a slew of victories by the women’s group in Tilonia. In the early 1980s, in Rajasthan villages there was no stigma attached for higher caste men in committing rape. The victims, however, had to live with a crippling social stigma. A particularly notorious village did not even allow women to assemble to discuss issues concerning them. The social dynamics has completely changed today by the activism of women trained in Barefoot and again led by Norti Devi.

One such perpetrator of sexual crime, who belonged to the dominant caste of the village, was subjected to complete social boycott after pressure from women. This set a precedent. Norti says, “Gradually the fear and the stigma attached to rape for women lessened. They found the confidence and the voice to report a rape to us because they knew we will support them. Rapes don’t happen in the vicinity anymore.”

Meanwhile, Norti joined Barefoot to become a solar engineer. Bunker suggested that she become computer-literate. “Initially it was difficult because the keyboard is in English. Through my daily chores, I would keep memorising Hindi alphabets on English keyboard. The first time Bunkerji gave me a letter to type it was full of mistakes. He asked me to try again, try faster and do the entire daily math on the computer. Now I am proficient in computer and also the accounting software Tally.” Her contribution to society was recognised with CII-Bharti Exemplar award in 2007.

Three years back Norti became the sarpanch of her village. Contrary to campaigning norms, there was no money spent or other inducements given , such as free liquor. Still she won with a huge margin. She giggles and says, “My secretary is educated and she does not know how to use a computer. I taught her. She was overwhelmed initially but I encouraged her saying that if she can remember 100 jars and their different contents in her kitchen, then why would remembering a few letters on the keyboard be difficult?”

In 2009, Ban Ki-moon invited Norti to the UN for a speech. “I was not in the least bit afraid. I made a three-minute speech in Hindi. After the speech, I took a round of the place and saw flags from all over the world. I spotted our flag and pointed it out to the people,” Norti says with a twinkle in her eye.

The Barefoot College can rightly pride itself on its roll of honour which includes a dalit puppeteer with proficiency in accounting; the previously doubly disadvantaged dalit women as solar engineers; illiterate grandmother engineers helping to solar electrify their villages in far-flung corners of the world; school students as social activists; and a daily wage worker as an empowered community leader with her contribution being acknowledged by the highest body of global governance. It will be difficult to put the genie back into the bottle.




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